By  on May 18, 2010

Miss Jackson’s is still turning heads at 100.

The grande dame of Tulsa, Okla., luxury retailing was founded by Nelle Jackson in 1910 as a small lingerie shop. It expanded in 1928 when it moved to the Philtower, the highest building in Tulsa at the time. The store has remained a key resource for Tulsa’s well-heeled women. Not even the Great Depression nor Jackson’s retirement in the Fifties could stop Miss Jackson’s.

After Jackson sold the store in 1964 to the Vandever Co., it was relocated to Utica Square, an open-air mall in the city. Upon Jackson’s death in 1966, the store was sold again to local businessman William F. Fisher Sr.

Miss Jackson’s in 2001 was purchased by Helmerich & Payne, a drilling company that owns Utica Square. Walter Helmerich 3rd, the 87-year-old chairman, oversees Miss Jackson’s with tender loving care. “We invested $1.5 million in updating the store,” he said. “We worked with a decorator who does all the Neiman Marcus stores. He did a complete renovation.”

Miss Jackson’s occupies 35,000 square feet at Utica Square, where other retailers include Saks Fifth Avenue, Talbot’s, Jos. A. Bank and Pendleton. Although the store bears little physical resemblance to the original lingerie shop, Helmerich said Miss Jackson’s service culture is based on the founder’s philosophy.

“It’s a store where salespeople call and say, ‘Come in, I have something for you,’” said Helmerich. “Associates send customers handwritten notes. We have in-house alterations, free delivery within Tulsa and free gift wrapping.”

“Some sales associates have been here over 45 years,” said Judy White, general manager. “They cultivate relationships with several generations of the same family. We still try to follow Nelle Jackson’s footsteps and offer the best service we can. We offer shoppers a beverage in the dressing room and send things to customers for approval.”

Miss Jackson’s draws shoppers from Tulsa’s wealthiest neighborhoods, including Forest Hills, Philbrook and South Tulsa. “Thirty years ago, Tulsa was the oil capital of the world,” said Helmerich. “Then it all moved to Houston. Half of the money here is still oil money. A lot of the independent investors and owners who died left foundations. Cattle is still a big business in Tulsa.”

Miss Jackson’s had sales of $6 million last year, said Helmerich. Sales at both Saks and Miss Jackson’s were down in 2009, by 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively, but Helmerich sees signs of improvement this year.

Miss Jackson’s main concern is its aging customer base. “All of the wealthiest women in Tulsa shopped at Miss Jackson’s, but now they’re dying off,” said Helmerich. “We’ve started to bring younger people in.”

The retailer is turning to the daughters and granddaughters of longtime customers. While St. John and Eskandar, two of Miss Jackson’s best-selling collections, appeal to a mature woman, the store has been adding younger lines. “We have Kevin,” White said. “We have Alice & Olivia, Free People and Joe’s Jeans. We carry a little bit of everything. We try to target a wide range of customers, women from their mid-30s to more mature women, but we also have some younger girls who come to do their debutante ball shopping.”

In addition to fashion, Miss Jackson’s sells fine jewelry, cosmetics, fragrance, china, chocolate and gifts. Helmerich knows that in this economy, the definition of luxury can be malleable. “The jewelry department is not a big profit center like it was,” he said. “There isn’t a market for fine jewelry, so we’ve brought in fashion jewelry.”

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